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An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

What is the influence of food waste throughout the food chain?

Food waste is defined as food intended for human consumption but that is not used for that purpose. Wastage may be avoidable or unavoidable. The consumer accounts for 30-50% of all food waste, followed by (often unavoidable) waste during food processing.

What is food waste?

Roughly a third of the food produced worldwide is wasted, totaling 1.3 billion tons per year. For foods that are ultimately not eaten, the environmental impact has been for nothing. The FAO defines waste as the share of food intended for human consumption, but not being used for that purpose. Although most countries have similar total wastages, poorest countries waste the least. In rich countries more wastage takes place in supermarkets and with consumers, while in the poorest countries food waste occurs predominantly in the links from harvest to processing.

Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., Van Otterdijk, R., & Meybeck, A. (2011), p. 2-5.

FAO, report by the high level panel of experts (2014), p. 27.

Moerman’s Ladder

Food that is threatened to be wasted can be processed in various ways. Sometimes, prevention of food losses and re-use as human food (e.g. food banks) avoids food losses altogether. Moerman’s Ladder indicates how much value can still be extracted from food that is lost, with the rule of thumb “the higher up the ladder, the better”:

  • Convertible for human food (reworking of food)
  • Use in animal feed
  • Raw materials for industry (biobased economy) 
  • Processing into fertilizer by fermentation (and renewable energy)
  • Processing into fertilizer by composting
  • Application for sustainable energy (with the purpose of energy production)
  • Burning as waste (aim is destruction, with possible energy production)
  • Organic waste to landfill (dumping food waste on landfills is illegal) 

The Dutch situation

Due to lack of data about where waste is created, it is difficult to assign it to specific links in the food chain, but from the way in which waste streams are processed much can be derived about their origin. It is clear that the Dutch consumer wastes most, with a share of between 30 and 50% in total food losses. This food is mainly burned as garbage, which creates very little value. Furthermore, approximately 20% of total waste is reprocessed into animal feed by the processing industry. Wastage in primary production, transport and supermarkets in the Netherlands is relatively low. In production and processing, waste is usually caused by process losses, in supermarkets by misalignment of inventory and demand.

Soethoudt, H., & Timmermans, T. (2013), p. 46-48.

Infographic by Wageningen UR about food waste.

Food wasted by consumers

The Dutch waste a relatively large share of their food. Of the 368 kilos of solid food that the average person buys annually, 66 kilograms (18%) are wasted. Of this, 47 kg is avoidable: mainly bread, fruit, vegetables and potatoes that for example have passed their expiry date, were purchased in too large quantities or of which too much was prepared during cooking. Further, 19 kg is unavoidable: husks and stalks, coffee and meat and fish leftovers that cannot be consumed. These numbers have remained virtually unchanged in recent years.

Van Westerhoven, M. & Steenhuisen, F. (2013), p. 14.

Van Dooren, C. (2015a), p. 3.